Testing random forest classification for identifying lava flows and mapping age groups on a single Landsat 8 image

Long Li, Carmen Solana, Frank Canters, Matthieu Kervyn

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Mapping lava flows using satellite images is an important application of remote sensing in volcanology. Several volcanoes have been mapped through remote sensing using a wide range of data, from optical to thermal infrared and radar images, using techniques such as manual mapping, supervised/unsupervised classification, and elevation subtraction. So far, spectral-based mapping applications mainly focus on the use of traditional pixel-based classifiers, without much investigation into the added value of object-based approaches and into advantages of using machine learning algorithms. In this study, Nyamuragira, characterized by a series of > 20 overlapping lava flows erupted over the last century, was used as a case study. The random forest classifier was tested to map lava flows based on pixels and objects. Image classification was conducted for the 20 individual flows and for 8 groups of flows of similar age using a Landsat 8 image and a DEM of the volcano, both at 30-meter spatial resolution. Results show that object-based classification produces maps with continuous and homogeneous lava surfaces, in agreement with the physical characteristics of lava flows, while lava flows mapped through the pixel-based classification are heterogeneous and fragmented including much “salt and pepper noise”. In terms of accuracy, both pixel-based and object-based classification performs well but the former results in higher accuracies than the latter except for mapping lava flow age groups without using topographic features. It is concluded that despite spectral similarity, lava flows of contrasting age can be well discriminated and mapped by means of image classification. The classification approach demonstrated in this study only requires easily accessible image data and can be applied to other volcanoes as well if there is sufficient information to calibrate the mapping.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)109-124
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research
Early online date26 Jul 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2017


  • lava flows
  • Nyamuragira
  • pixel-based classification
  • object-based classification
  • random forest


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